Typically, the "C" is played like this in the key of C:

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But when I play another song, in the key of D, is the C chord still played like this? If not, how do I play it on the guitar? Likewise, if the song is in the key of G, how does it change, and is there a pattern to follow? Thanks.

  • 1
    Your questions seem simple, but you are asking about a complex subject with elaborate implications, as you can see from the different answers posted here. You asked "is there any pattern to follow"? To answer this question, you should take lessons from a music teacher on the basics of harmony.
    – user1044
    Feb 16, 2012 at 18:47
  • In general, YES, but you may choose to voice the chord differently -- that is, to play a different arrangement of C, E, and G. One reason for this may be convenience -- if you've just played an Ab chord barred at the 4th fret you may opt to play a C chord barred at the 3rd fret. Another is that you may prefer a voicing which emphasizes certain notes; for example, if a song in C ends with a C, G, C progression, some pieces will play a C chord with a G in the base to emphasize the approaching G chord. Or you may want a G on top so that it leads to F# in a following D maj. Many options!
    – Epanoui
    Oct 29, 2015 at 5:36

6 Answers 6

  • The notes C, E and G played together are always a C major chord.
  • A C major chord is always the notes C, E and G.
  • Fret that shape on a guitar, and it's always C Major.

When you play in a different key, C major's role changes.

If you're playing in the key of C major, then C major is the root chord - the I. F is the fourth chord (IV) and G is the fifth chord (V). Lots of simple songs are based on I,IV and V, so you may recognise that set of chords.

If you play in the key of G major, then I is G major, IV is C major, V is D major.

So, in the key of G when you see "C" on the song sheet, you fret the same shape, and play the same notes as you did when you saw "C" in a song in the key of C. But this time the C is playing a different role. It is the IV. It "feels" different; the listener is waiting for you to return to root chord, G.

Look through your songbooks and see if you can spot I,IV and V in other keys. Beginner guitar books tend to use the keys C, G, E, D, A.

Edit to add:

Here's an analogy.

a circle, the sun, a ball

Think of your C major chord as a circle. It doesn't matter where you draw a circle; you always draw it the same way. Seen on its own, it just looks like a circle. A C major chord just sounds like a C major chord.

The rest of the piece you're playing defines what that C major chord "does". The key of the piece is a fundamental part of that.

Because of the other lines drawn around the circle, it becomes the sun, or a football, or a planet, or a head, or a compact disk, or whatever the artist chooses. In the same way, the other notes you play around your C chord, make it take on different purposes in the music.

  • 3
    I like that analogy.
    – user28
    Feb 17, 2012 at 18:26
  • This is a good answer, but it's not complete. While the diagram shown is always a C Major chord, there are other ways to form a C major chord on a guitar neck, which will produce different chord voicings (which notes are next to which others) that can sound better in a particular key or progression.
    – KeithS
    Feb 22, 2012 at 23:33

A C Major chord always contains the same notes (C, E, G), as a major chord is a triad including a root (C), a major third over the root (E), and a perfect fifth over the root(G). These notes can be rearranged in any order or voicing, but they will still be C, E, and G.

If you were playing in a different key, such as D major, there is no diatonic C chord. There is, however, a C#-dim. Regardless of which key you are playing, in general if someone says to play a C chord, they will mean C major.

  • +1, I think that last sentence most clearly explains the main point of confusion. Good answer =) Feb 15, 2012 at 14:33
  • There may not be a DIATONIC C major chord in D major, but it's commonly used in that key, without in the slightest implying a modulation. The Beatles caught that trick off Burt Bacharach, who caught it off ... oh SO many sources. But your question seems to be about a guitar chord shape. Whatever key you're in, that's ONE shape for a C major chord. There are many others.
    – Laurence
    Feb 18, 2016 at 15:50

Nothing changes. C-major is always C-major (do-mi-sol) without regard to key. The only thing that could change is position where chord would be more comfortable to play in certain key.

  • then, wt is the meaning of the key?
    – Ted Wong
    Feb 15, 2012 at 13:50
  • 1
    The key tells you what notes are expected. You can have all manner of chords, some may be more common in a particular key but there is nothing to prevent a weird dissonant chord to set up a return
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Feb 15, 2012 at 18:14
  • 2
    Careful. Sol-fa is relative or movable depending on where you live.
    – slim
    Feb 15, 2012 at 22:26

In well-tempered tuning, a c is a c and an e is an e and a g is a g, regardless of what key you're playing in. So, guitar (normally) being restricted to well-tempered tuning, there is no way a C major chord could be intrinsically any different in different keys. Of course there are different voicings in which you can play the chord, the most common being (in tabulature)


but the choice among these mostly has to do with sound and playing comfort, not with a song's key.

This doesn't hold for all tunings, but as far as guitar and common western music is concerned you shouldn't ever need to worry about that.

  • 2
    There's actually a difference between well-tempered and equal-tempered tuning. The current standard is equal temperament.
    – NReilingh
    Feb 17, 2012 at 0:26
  • 1
    @NReilingh right, however well-tempered is a term that, if you go by the definition "in such a way that it is possible to play music in most major or minor keys and it will not sound perceptibly out of tune" includes equal-tempered tuning. For the point I made it doesn't matter what kind of well-termpered tuning we're talking about, all of them have each one canonical c, e and g. So it applies even for a guitar that has fine-tuned frets so that the tuning is another kind of well-tempered one. — BTW, leaving aside keyboards and guitars, equal temperament isn't really the universal standard. Feb 17, 2012 at 0:48

The Major chord is based on the 1-3-5 of the major scale. D Major scale has D as 1, F# as 3, and A as 5, so D Major chord will always be (D,F#,A) played in combination anywhere on the fret board regardless of key! I just figured this out myself, so yay!!! Same applies to any Major chord. C Major is (C,E,G) always etc... To make a chord minor, just flat the third, so Dm is (D,F,A) and Cm is (C,Eb,G). The key only shows which chords fit and where they fit, but doesn't change the chord itself.


The only thing I'd add to these answers would be that while no, the key of a song doesn't change the chords, the key you're playing in might force one to play with a capo or a nonstandard tuning. In those cases, the notes to make a C major are the same, but the shapes of the chords may be forced to change.

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